UArizona's CESM guides state mining industry, regulators with sustainability research

Nov. 25, 2022

The Center for Environmentally Sustainable Mining hosts first conference with government official, state regulators, industry representatives

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An audience of mining industry professionals, government regulators, university researchers interact at CESM conference, environmental science
Jake Kerr Over 60 attendees joined Environmental Science's Center for Environmentally Sustainable Mining (CESM) for a research and technology sharing conference, led by Dr. Julie Neilson (pictured).

Over six billion dollars worth of nonfuel minerals are produced every year in Arizona alone, ranking it the second-highest U.S. state in the category. To keep mining activity sustainable requires modern technology and industry-leading research — a task University of Arizona’s Center for Environmentally Sustainable Mining (CESM) is tackling. 

Directed by Environmental Science associate research professor, Dr. Julie Neilson, CESM leverages industry support to develop research and educational initiatives to enhance the sustainability of mining.

To strengthen the relationship between CESM, industry stakeholders, and government agency stakeholders, Neilson, along with the CESM organizing committee and Technical Advisory Committee organized a research and technology-sharing conference in early November. 

The CESM organizing committee included co-director Dr. Alicja Babst-Kostecka, deputy director Dr. Raina Maier, Dr. Mónica Ramírez-Andreotta and Bethany Obernesser.

“Research is needed to provide the mining industry with improved management practices and more effective reclamation tools to reduce the impact of mining, improve mine-waste containment, and return sites to self-sustaining ecosystems following mine closure,” Neilson said.

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ADEQ officials pose for a photograph with Environmental science research Bethany Obernesser
Jake Kerr Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) officials, including Director Misael Cabrera, attended the CESM conference to hear about the latest UA research and work with industry professionals.

About 60 people from various aspects of the mining field, including government agencies and regulators, industry representatives, and University of Arizona faculty and students, attended the conference. Technical presentations on mining sustainability topics were delivered by CESM faculty, Drs. Mark Barton and Jon Pelletier from UA’s Geosciences department, and Dr. Minkyu Kim from the Biomedical and Material Sciences Engineering department.

Misael Cabrera, the director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), attended the conference to hear how CESM can help find solutions to state mining challenges. ADEQ is responsible for administering the state’s environmental laws and overseeing certain

federal programs to maintain sustainable practices.

“This is a great partnership that the ADEQ absolutely needs to be a part of because it is combining academia, industry and state regulatory agencies to come up with real world solutions to important topics,” Cabrera said.

As CESM not only consists of University personnel, but also industry representatives on their Technical Advisory Committee, Cabrera said the breadth of perspective is a strength for CESM.

“I think there is a very real opportunity to engage CESM in our regulatory processes as a major stakeholder because it will represent a multiplicity of voices that are healthy in our stakeholder process pursuant to regulations,” Cabrera said.

Other government agencies were represented, such as the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service. Paul Marsh, Arizona’s recently elected State Mine Inspector, also attended and participated in discussions with various stakeholders.

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Environmental Science researchers work in small groups with government regulators and industry professionals at the CESM conference
Jake Kerr Attendees of the CESM conference broke out into small groups to discuss issues, solutions, and research in different aspects of the mining industry as it relates to environmental sustainability.

Marsh and his office are responsible for overseeing the health and safety of the public and their land related to active and recently closed mines. 

“As the world changes, the rules have to change with it,” Marsh said. “Although many companies don’t like changing the rules, there may come a time when CESM comes with best practices and those need to be incorporated into law. When that happens we need to work together to get that done.”   

CESM’s research focus combines work with active mine operations and reclaiming land previously used for mines, which is often left unsafe for the public without intervention. According to Marsh’s work, there are about 100,000 abandoned mines in Arizona.

To clean up old mine sites and ones that are actively closing, Bethany Obernesser, CESM program coordinator, said it will take partnerships and work from various groups to be feasible.

“This is a large task, and it takes the input from industry leaders, scientific experts, and governmental regulators to make it happen,” Obernesser said. “CESM is an avenue where these different perspectives can coalesce to support research that proves effective and efficient for ecosystem regeneration and waste stability after mines close.”

While current Environmental Science faculty work actively with CESM partners, Dr. Alicja Babst-Kostecka, emphasized the importance of department graduate and undergraduate students sharing their work at the conference as well.

“Our students had a unique opportunity to interact with and communicate their research findings to both mining industry leaders and regulators,” Babst-Kostecka said. “This broadened their professional horizons, exemplified career perspectives, and reinforced their confidence that the excellent work that they are doing on a daily basis has applied relevance for communities and societies in Arizona.”

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Environmental Science graduate and undergraduate students pose for a photo in front of their research posters
Jake Kerr Environmental Science undergraduate and graduate students presented their research to industry professionals and government regulators at the CESM conference.

As CESM continues to strengthen their relationship with industry professionals and regulators, Neilson reiterated the importance of all groups aligning their interests with latest research findings.

“It is critical that industry leaders, regulators and government officials identify and prioritize the technological advances needed by industry to reduce the environmental and social impacts of mining,” Neilson said. “This collaboration will inform these stakeholders of the research potential of CESM to address these needed technological advances.”

As representatives from many CESM partners expressed gratitude for the opportunity to connect with each other and an interest in future gatherings, CESM plans on holding annual conferences to maintain sustainable practices on Arizona mine sites.